The fervour with which many people cling on to the official status of English in Hong Kong was highlighted by the recent furore over Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s supposed dismissal of its importance. She even issued a statement soon afterwards, buttressing Hong Kong’s commitment to the English language.
The English language was bequeathed to Hong Kong and Singapore by Britain and it is accorded official status in both, but this is where the similarities end.
In Singapore, more than 70 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese while Malays, Indians and others make up the rest. It was against this diverse racial and linguistic backdrop that English, perceived to be neutral, became the common language.
English does not serve a similar purpose in Hong Kong, where an overwhelming 92 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese and Cantonese is the dominant tongue. However, Article 9 of the Basic Law states that “in addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language”. This is not so much a nod to the existence of the other 8 per cent of the population (many of whom do not speak English as their first language), but a conscious protestation of Hong Kong’s raison d’être as an “international city”, distinct from the rest of China.
While Singapore and Hong Kong place the language of their former rulers on a pedestal, the reverse was usually true in China’s past, with conquerors adopting the language of the conquered. During the Northern Wei dynasty, whose ruling Xianbei people hailed from present-day Siberia, the process was written in policy and expedited.
Emperor Xiaowen (who reigned from AD471 to 499) implemented a full-scale Sinicisation programme across his state, which covered most of northern China. Apart from political reforms based on Chinese models, he decreed the Xianbei people had to wear Chinese dress and adopt Chinese names. (The imperial family led by example in changing their surname from the Xianbei “Tuoba” to the Chinese “Yuan”.)
The most important of these policies was forcing the Xianbei people to abandon their own language and speak Chinese. Those aged 30 or above were given a grace period to acquire fluency, but younger Xianbei officials would be demoted or dismissed if they did not become Chinese literate.
Other foreign occupiers from northern and central Asia such as the Manchu were less draconian in their language policies, but they too eventually adopted the Chinese language as their own. The only exceptions were the Mongols, who ruled between 1271 and 1368, and of course the Europeans and Japanese who occupied parts of the Chinese nation in the 19th and 20th centuries.